A New Restaurant's Biggest Crisis

The owner of Bangkok's recently opened Soul Food Mahanakorn weighs his toughest decision thus far: whether to fire a manager—and risk losing the entire staff


Jarrett Wrisley

Two weeks ago, I faced a crisis of great magnitude at my restaurant.

An employee turned out to be a little different than I expected. After several warnings from me, and many more foolish decisions on his part, this person had to go. The problem was, he has helped me hire nearly all of my staff. Some of my chefs were related to him by blood. My floor staff envied him— the countryside kid who conquered Bangkok. But really, when it came down to it, he wasn't worth it. He was a liability.

For those of you who think restaurants are all about serving good food, come inside and make yourself comfortable. You'll see that most of what I do as a restaurant owner has very little to do with food at all. The bulk of this job is a balancing act— I spend a great deal of time negotiating with my staff, attempting to meet their emotional needs while encouraging them to satisfy my own professional ones. My average kitchen helper, at the moment, lasts exactly one day. New servers usually last two (and one if they start on a Friday). Still, I have managed to retain my opening team by being sensitive to their needs. This is not easy. It is my greatest concern, save the satisfaction of my guests.

One must maintain appearances. I felt like a character in a Jane Austen novel, all stiff upper lip and fake social grace.

For two weeks I tossed and turned in bed, wondering how I could rid myself of the corrosive forces of one person without losing all of my staff. If things went horribly wrong, I might lose 8 out of 10 employees in one day, after having trained them for three months. We are now busy, by the way, and I would be forced to retrain floor and kitchen staff at once, with a full book of reservations, ongoing media coverage, and the newfound ire of a city where some now believe foreigners are bastardizing their cuisine. Sleep. Yeah. Right.

I did what I thought might be the only way to keep my staff. I worked really hard. I stayed sober at night. I paid attention to small things when people thought I wasn't. I set traps. I smiled kindly and spoke to each of them privately and prepared for the day when I would let their coworker go, and in doing so regain the control and integrity of my shop. This was easily the most difficult thing I've had to do since we opened.

I had to pretend that things weren't disappearing, that I held no real grudges, and that everything was running smoothly. One must maintain appearances. I felt like a character in a Jane Austen novel, all stiff upper lip and fake social grace.

Imagine a restaurant as an omelet. One that was made with way too many eggs. And you need to flip it with a spatula that is very small. There are 20 people tonight waiting for that omelet, and there you sit, with your little spatula, wondering if the whole goddamn thing is going to fall apart. That is how I felt.

One week ago, on a Sunday afternoon, I ate a big lunch with my wife at a newly opened French restaurant in Bangkok. The food was not very good. But now, instead of feeling outright disgust, I wondered why it wasn't good— if the cooks had quit, if the owner was scrambling to find better ones, if the night shift was better than the guys working brunch. I had compassion. And as I ate, all I could think about was what might happen to me.

On Sunday I did what had to be done. It wasn't the nightmare scenario I played over in my head so many times. I promoted someone from inside to manage. My cooks, after a long talk, decided to stay. And after service, our team went out to eat. We ate and we laughed and we drank beer and my bartender touched my knee and smiled, understanding. And all of a sudden, I understood that they all understood.

And now I know how important it is to lead not with vicious words, or angry stares, or empty threats. One must lead by example.

And just like that, I got my restaurant back.